American Heroes: Lieutenant General Chesty Puller

We all start somewhere, and he started out as serial number 135517. He’s the man known as The Tiger of the Mountains; the man who was born in one century, fought ferociously in the next, and remains a legend in a third. The man known for his upright posture, bull chest, and fearless drive. The man’s man, and the Marine’s Marine. The most decorated Marine in history. He’s the epitome of everything the American Hero should be; he’s Chesty Puller.

Chesty Puller was born Lewis Burwell Puller on June 26, 1898, in West Point, Virginia. His father, Matthew Puller, was a grocer who passed away when Chesty was just 10 years old, and his mother, Martha, would later attempt to stop her young son from joining the military. Chesty grew up listening to the war stories of Civil War-era veterans, and somehow it makes sense such a courageous Marine would have cut his teeth on tales of Elliot’s Brigade, Quantrill’s Raiders, and Gettysburg. His childhood hero was Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a man known for such bold acts as standing firm at the First Battle of Bull Run; it seemed he knew from an early age his destiny lay with the military. Chesty’s first military attempt took place in 1916 when the Border War with Mexico was underway, but he was too young and his mother refused to give him permission. Of course, all that did was temporarily delay his rise to legendary status.

The year after being unable to enlist in the US Army, Chesty attended the Virginia Military Institute, which is the oldest state-supported military college in the country. At VMI the environment is Spartan, the physical demands enormous, and the academic requirements strenuous. And although it’s precisely the kind of place where Chesty would have flourished, he was out by 1918, announcing his desire to “go where the guns are.”  This time he wouldn’t try for the Army, though. He was inspired by the ferocity of the 5th Marines at the Battle of Belleau Wood, which had just taken place in June of that same year, and that meant joining the Marine Corps.

Chesty enlisted in the Marines and attended boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina. After boot camp, he sailed through officer candidate school, receiving his commission as a second lieutenant on June 16, 1919. Finally, Chesty was ready to go to war. Or so it seemed. A scant 10 days after his commission, a postwar reduction took place, and he was placed on the inactive list. Chesty, it seemed, would have to wait to go where the guns were. But not for long, because this was, after all, Chesty Puller, and he was going to get in the action, whatever it took.

On June 30, 1919, four days after having been placed on the inactive list, Chesty took action, rejoining the Marines as an enlisted man. He got started as a corporal and was assigned to Haiti, and here we enter the Awesome portion of our tale.

“Take me to the Brig. I want to see the real Marines.” During a Battalion inspection

Chesty PullerHis time in Haiti was a time for learning the ropes of combat; he fought in more than 40 engagements against Caco rebels during that time. And when his time in Haiti came to an end, he’d regained his commission as a second lieutenant once again. The fact that we’re glossing over this portion of his military career despite it including dozens of engagements isn’t due to its lack of badassitude – yes, we may have just made that word up – it’s due to all the amazing things he did down the road. There just isn’t time to get heavily into every detail, so let’s move on.

In 1930 he was sent to Nicaragua, a freshly minted second lieutenant who had already sunk his teeth into battle more than a few times. The rebels of Nicaragua were bloodthirsty and stealthy with a reputation for having absolutely no problem taking on outsiders. With that in mind, the military sent in Chesty, of course, whose adroitness for kicking tail and taking names had a firm start in Haiti and was about to take off in major ways. It was here he earned the nickname The Tiger of the Mountains.

“You don’t hurt ’em if you don’t hit ’em.”

Early on in the campaign, Chesty and his men faced off with a substantially larger rebel force that was dug into the mountains pretty deeply. Seeing they were in a serious situation against rebellious natives who were obviously set on staying put, Chesty did what any badass would do: he and his men simply charged each fortified position without another thought. For about a week, Chesty and his men basically beat the daylights out of the rebels not once but five times, through it all sustaining only the barest of casualties themselves. And that’s how Chesty got his first Navy Cross, by setting his jaw and pretty much annihilating the enemy over and over until they were probably ready to pack up their rebel toys and go home. From the official Navy Cross citation: “[Chesty] successfully led his forces into five successful engagements against superior numbers of armed bandit forces; namely, at LaVirgen on 16 February 1930, at Los Cedros on 6 June 1930, at Moncotal on 22 July 1930, at Guapinol on 25 July 1930, and at Malacate on 19 August 1930.”

Chesty Puller: first Navy Cross. Nicaraguan rebels: 0

“Remember, you are the 1st Marines! Not all the Communists in Hell can overrun you!” at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir

1stLt Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller with members of the Guardia Nacional.
1stLt Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller with members of the Guardia Nacional.

A bit later, still in Nicaragua, Chesty was leading his men (who were local Guardia Patrol members) through the rather treacherous mountains on what was, for a Marine, a nice walk, and for normal people was actually a 100-mile hike away from the nearest base through dangerous territory full of crazed rebels. Once they’d gotten 100 miles out, the rebels attacked. 150 rebels armed with fully automatic weapons and a nice selection of small arms as well as an apparently endless supply of ammo launched a sneak attack against the Marines, but they’d made a fatal error in judgment: this was Chesty Puller and his men, and they didn’t know the meaning of “vastly outnumbered.” Things were grim right from the start with second-in-command Gunnery Sergeant Lee mortally wounded and reported as dead; not just that but the Guardia standing right behind Chesty was killed with the first burst of rebel gunfire.

It didn’t look good – and did we mention Chesty had just 40 men with him to stand against the 150 bad guys? But Chesty stood his ground and remained calm, directing his men with surgical precision, and they managed to drive the rebels down from the high ground they’d taken to the right side of their position. Next they focused on the high ground to their left, flanking the rebels and doling out some serious punishment. At this point the rebels must have realized what poor choices they were making and took off. Chesty decided to take the Guardia back to base and went back in the direction they’d come from – 100 miles away, mind you – a walk back during which they were assaulted not once but twice more by rebel forces much larger than their own. Every time the rebels attacked they were swiftly cut down to size. Chesty kept a cool head through it all and was awarded his second Navy Cross. It just goes to show you, it isn’t terribly smart to launch sneak attacks on a man like Chesty Puller; rebels lose every time.

After Chesty’s impressive performance in the mountains, the rebel leaders weren’t terribly amused, so they put a bounty on his head. The reward was 5,000 pesos for his demise; you know you’ve made an impression when the enemy gets so hacked off they start bringing mercenaries and Boba Fett-style killers in to take you out. Of course, the reward was never collected, because even mercenaries knew better than to try their luck against the indomitable Chesty Puller.

Chesty: second Navy Cross. Rebels: 0

Marine Colonel Lewis B. Puller, right, who distinguished himself during the Inchon landing, studies the terrain before advancing to another enemy objective beyond Inchon.
Marine Colonel Lewis B. Puller, right, who distinguished himself during the Inchon landing, studies the terrain before advancing to another enemy objective beyond Inchon.

At this point there was a little gap in combat where Chesty served as the commander of the “Horse Marines” in Peking, China. What did Horse Marines do? We’re glad you asked. Their idea of training time involved crossing their stirrups over their pommels and putting their hands behind their backs, at which point they’d take a cross-country ride. The men who kept up and performed well were allowed to stay while those who failed were tossed out without ceremony. Chesty, of course, performed well, probably also asking for a blindfold during these cross-country jaunts just to make things interesting. And then his time with the famed Horse Marines and a few others things he was doing while waiting for his next battle came to a close, because World War II had arrived and you know the military wasn’t going to take on the Germans without Chesty Puller there to lead the charge.

Chesty upon being surrounded: “They are in front of us, behind us, and we are flanked on both sides by an enemy that outnumbers us 29:1. They can’t get away from us now!”

Of all the acts of heroism Chesty performed during World War II, it’s hard to choose just one, but here it is:  the source of one of Chesty’s greatest quotes ever. At this point Chesty was the commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, and their current task was an amphibious assault by the Matanikau River on the island of Guadalcanal. Three companies from the 1/7 struck out for dry land and, upon coming ashore, were met with an overwhelming show of force. The Japanese were waiting for them, in numbers that monstrously outnumbered the Marines, and not just that, they were armed to the teeth. The invading Marines were surrounded and, although more Marines who were already on shore attempted to break through the Japanese to reach the embattled men, the enemy was simply too large and flat-out impenetrable. The operational commander told Chesty there was no hope and his men were lost, and we can safely assume Chesty’s response to that must have included something along the lines of “Do you know who I am?”

Chesty at Guadalcanal
Chesty at Guadalcanal

Seeing his men in serious distress and imminent danger, Chesty simply left the tent where they’d been directing the battle and headed for the water. Fortunately there was, indeed, a destroyer not too far away – it was the USS Monssen – and Chesty simply flagged it down. Technically he really didn’t have the authority to do what he was about to do, but this was, after all Chesty freaking Puller we’re talking about. He went ahead and ordered the destroyer to provide cover fire so more Marines could stage yet another amphibious landing, and the Monssen did just that. Some serious shelling ensued, during the course of which the new landing of Marines went in and simply drilled a hole right through the Japanese, successfully rescuing the trapped men. It is vital to note here the sacrifice made by US Coast Guard Signalman First Class Douglas Albert Munro, who was the officer-in-charge of the new group of Marines going in to rescue the others. While the trapped Marines were escaping, Munro courageously provided cover fire from his landing craft, and was killed. Munro was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor and is, today, the only Coast Guardsman ever to have received the esteemed medal.

For his bold and daring part in the events of that day Chesty was awarded a Bronze Star with a V-device.

Chesty on being surrounded, again: “Great. Now we can shoot at those bastards from every direction.”

There is one more night we’d like to mention: 24 October 1942. On that night which would become known as the Battle for Henderson Field, Chesty had 700 men from the 1/7 under his command. He really needed more, because they had a mile-long stretch to cover the airfield, which was an absolutely critical location for the success of the Guadalcanal campaign. On the night in question the Japanese 17th Army came at the Marines with everything they had, and it was a lot; this was no ragtag group of assailants, it was an army of viciously trained Japanese soldiers. For three hours Chesty again stayed calm and cool, charging back and forth among his men, giving orders and directing the fight to maintain the line against the relentless onslaught. And when it was over, Chesty and his valiant men hadn’t just won the day, they’d crushed it. Although the 1/7 and 3/164 did sustain 70 casualties, the Japanese had suffered a staggering loss of 1,400 men. They didn’t just lose to the Americans, they had their hats handed to them.

Chesty: nominated two of his men for the Medal of Honor and thoroughly trounced the enemy. Japanese: crushing defeat.

Chesty was also present for the battle of Peleliu, which is perhaps the bloodiest battle in Marine Corps history. During his World War II service he was repeatedly shot and hit with shrapnel during attempts to blow him up, but he kept on fighting. And after World War II, he went on to kick ass in the Korean War as well. To say Chesty Puller was an American Hero of epic proportions would be a massive understatement.

There was devastation in his life as well. In 1944 Chesty’s younger brother, Samuel Puller, who was the Executive Officer of the 4th Marine Regiment, was shot and killed by a sniper on Guam. Chesty’s son, Lewis Burwell Puller, Jr., was a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam serving with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines.  Tragically, Lewis was horrifically wounded in a mine explosion in Vietnam and lost both of his legs and parts of both hands. When Chesty visited his son in the hospital, the usually stoic man broke down and cried at the sight of Lewis’ injuries.

During his service Chesty was awarded 5 Navy Crosses, a number that, to date, has not been matched by another Marine and has only been matched once by a service member from another branch. He also received a Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star with V-device, Legion of Merit with combat V, Air Medal, and a Purple Heart, among others. He was one of the most decorated Marines in history, and earned each medal through a combination of bravery, courage and valor, things he had in his very marrow. Lieutenant General Chesty Puller was a Marine’s Marine and an American Hero of unparalleled honor and strength.

Good night, Chesty Puller, wherever you are.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Image at top: Marines come ashore at Inchon in amphibian tractor prepared to plant their flag in Seoul. It was furnished to them by Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, USMC.

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine is a military and political journalist with a reputation for hard-hitting, no-holds-barred articles. Her career as a writer has immersed her in the military lifestyle and given her unique insights into the various branches of service. She is a firearms aficionado and has years of experience as a K9 SAR handler, and has volunteered with multiple support-our-troops charities for more than a decade. Katherine is passionate about military issues and feels supporting service members should be the top priority for all Americans. Her areas of expertise include the military, politics, history, firearms and canine issues.
Katherine Ainsworth
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3 thoughts on “American Heroes: Lieutenant General Chesty Puller

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